From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

What does the Australian Grey Lady want to know? Since news broke that the The New York Times was coming to Australia, details have been few and far between. But gossip has, slowly, reached the bunker.

As we reported last month, the paper has been conducting focus groups with Australian subscribers. Sources say that while the research teams emphasised confidentiality, not a lot was given away. We hear that the topics covered included where people got their news from, with many saying that they focus on digital news instead of television. The NYT research group also tested two different versions of an “Australian” homepage. One was similar to the current NYT homepage but with Australian news spread through the current offering, and the other was the current offering with a sidebar of Australian news. We hear that the members of the focus groups talked up their wish for more “serious” news. The focus groups were paid, and they included people between 25 and 59 in Sydney and Melbourne.

Meanwhile, the paper’s executives also made time to speak to local media bosses. Crikey hears The New York Times wasn’t giving away what it was doing (its executives came heavily armed with questions), but some participants did get the impression the paper was mostly focused on growing subscriptions from Australia. Which fits with what NYT head of communications Eileen Murphy told Crikey last month, that the paper saw Australia as “a large community of potential NYT subscribers”. The NYT already has several thousand Australian subscribers — growing that figure wouldn’t necessarily need a full-scale newsroom like has been set up by The Guardian.

The George Brandis diaries continued … “Dear diary, today I met with many LGBTI groups who all told me they love the plebiscite!” is what Brandis is claiming his diary might say about meetings held recently.

Attorney-General George Brandis told the ABC yesterday that gay groups realised that the plebiscite was the way forward:

“I have met with many, many advocates for marriage equality and those conversations obviously have been private conversations, but I can assure you that most of the gay groups that I have met with, while the plebiscite may not be their first preference, recognise that the plebiscite is now the surest and most immediate path to this outcome.”

When pushed in the Senate on which groups he had met with, Brandis said he had met with Australian Marriage Equality, the Australians 4 Equality offshoot from AME, the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, PFLAG and “Victorian gay and lesbian community advocates and others”.

Crikey verified with the ones Brandis mentioned that he did in fact meet with them, but we decided a freedom of information (FOI) request into Brandis’ diary would be difficult while he is still considering a High Court challenge over his recent court loss over shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus’ FOI for his 2014 diary entries.

But Dreyfus decided not to wait and filed another FOI request for a month’s worth of Brandis’ diary in the same format as in the previous request, but only for meetings with the pro- and anti-marriage equality sides. He has argued that such a request is so specific and so constrained that it will not need all the time that Brandis previously claimed prevented him from complying with the FOI Act (for which he is responsible). Dreyfus’ office tells Crikey that the aim of the request is to see whether Brandis gave equal face time to both sides of the issue before proceeding with legislation.

We wait with bated breath.

Government to block online retailers? This week, consumer organisation Choice reported that as part of the government’s attempt to get foreign online retailers to collect GST, it might give those retailers an ultimatum: pay up, or we’ll block your site in Australia.

Choice claims that the government is considering using section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to compel internet service providers to block the websites if they refuse to charge GST. This is the power that was all over the media a few years ago when ASIC accidentally blocked thousands of legitimate websites while seeking to block a single financial scam website, but it is mainly used by the Australian Federal Police to get ISPs to block child abuse websites.

After the ASIC incident, then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull commenced a review into the power, and the result was some weak draft guidelines released in April that among other things recommend agencies announce when they block certain websites, and allow “stop pages” to be put in place of the blocked sites so that people can know why they’re blocked.

 The Comms Department had been keeping tabs on the use of 313 during the review, but when we asked the department about it this week, we were told that agencies had no oversight over their website blocking now, because the department wasn’t keeping track of it. As for the guidelines, the department said it was still considering submissions and couldn’t say when these guidelines would be in place.

In any case, the block can be circumvented by VPN use, so those keen to buy overseas from retailers that tell the government where to stick it on collecting GST will still be to shop to their hearts’ content.

The arts community forgives and forgets? It’s been a few months since we’ve heard words of Michael Napthali, the former arts adviser to George Brandis and the key architect of the cuts to the Australia Council championed by the former arts minister. Napthali then became an adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but he was moved from the PM’s office to that of Arthur Sinodinos after the controversy over the “Tom Roberts coin”, an artefact that was lost after it had been given to Malcolm Turnbull by the acclaimed Australian artist’s descendant last year. Napthali resigned from that position due to family reasons not long after the ABC reported on the loss of the coin.

A tipster tells us that Napthali is reappearing in the Sydney arts scene:

“Effectively put into witness protection having overseen the most destructive arts cuts in Australian history, Napthali is leaning on his Sydney eastern suburbs private donor connections to help find him some work in the arts sector. He appeared at an Australian World Orchestra fundraising event at Carla Zampatti’s house a few weeks ago, the organisation he was once on the board of, and in a major controversy, managed to receive $1 million in outside funding from Brandis while scores of small to medium companies around the country faced the chop.”

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to [email protected] or use our guaranteed anonymous form